Do people really forget what happened when drinking? – Blackouts


By David Joel Miller.

Memory, Blackouts, Alcohol and Drugs.

Alcohol

Alcohol
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Alcohol and other drugs can impair memory in a number of ways. Alcoholics frequently say they can’t remember what happened while drinking. People who have never had a blackout question if the drinker really can’t remember, or do they just not want to take responsibility for their actions. Both are possible. Alcohol is not the only reason someone might do something and then have no memory of the occurrence. Consider the following examples.

Let’s say that the people in one of the classes I taught all became very close and the group decides they would like to have a celebration after the last session. We decide on a pizza party. We get out the phone book and look up the number. We are all old school, imagine the days before cell phone Apps. I read off the number and one of the students runs downstairs to make the call. In this building, there is almost no cell phone reception.

When they return I ask “Did you order soda?” They tell me they didn’t.  Well, we need something to drink with the pizza so go call and add some soda to the order. The students reply?

What was the number?

Why can’t they remember that number?

Now I just gave them the number why can’t they remember it?

Many things in life are held in short-term memory only as long as needed. Once the need for the information is gone the memory is discarded. You may remember what you ate for breakfast today but not many people could report what they had for breakfast all of the last 365 days. Even if they had the same thing every day they would not be able to tell me which day was better or worse.

Alcohol interrupts the transfer of information from current working memory to long-term memory. Since the memory could not be saved there is no memory remaining. Ever turn off a computer or close a file and then realize you hadn’t saved the work? Computers have programs to ask you if you want to save that, otherwise, we would lose a lot of work.

Cell phone designers had to include this factor in the design. They know that phone owners will want to call people back and that the human brain will not remember the number even if you just dialed it a minute ago. The phone holds the memory for you.

Blackouts are most likely to occur when the blood alcohol level rises rapidly. A few sips an hour, no blackout. Knock down the whole fifth in a couple of minutes and the rest of the night may be gone.

Blackouts are not the only reason alcohol and other drugs may alter memories.

State-dependent learning.

Consider this scenario. Someone goes to a cocktail party. During the night they talk with a lot of people, exchange some business cards and generally have a good productive time networking. Only they also drink too much.

Next morning they find the business cards in their pocket, only they can’t remember who these people were or what they talked about. They weren’t drunk enough to have a blackout but they did talk to a lot of people. Why can’t they remember these people?

Later in the day, they go to lunch, say they have drinks with lunch, nothing huge, just one or two drinks. They go for something in their pocket and there are those pesky cards. And suddenly they remember who these people were and what they talked about.

This is called state dependent learning.

Information is filed away in the brain but it is as if there are file cabinet drawers for memories that are only needed in certain situations. One file drawer is for things to remember while intoxicated. These memories are harder or impossible to find unless drunk.

Students who pull all-nighters to study for finals and use lots of chemicals to stay awake may have the same result. The brain puts those memories in a drawer labeled only needed when high on stimulants. Next day in class they forget everything they studied. The lack of sleep didn’t help either. Two weeks later over some espresso, they remember something they needed for the final.

This is also why some things just can’t be learned in a classroom. Swimming and diving are examples of this. All the classroom time in the world and suddenly when you are in the water everything changes. State-dependent learning can involve things other than alcohol or drugs. Internal states, like hunger and thirst and external states like places and activates can affect your ability to remember things.

In addition to blackouts and state-dependent learning, there are several other ways in which alcohol and drugs may be affecting memory.

Poor physical and mental health impairs memory.

When you are depressed or overtired, things may not stick in your memory. Over time there can be physical and chemical changes in the brain. Alcoholic’s brains shrink. Some drugs kill or damage nerve cells. Aging and normal memory loss may also be accelerated by substance abuse.

Memory also has a situational component. I use multiple computers at multiple locations. They each have different passwords. When at one office I will remember the password for that office and automatically enter it. Most of these passwords have to be changed every month. Last month I thought why not use the same password I just entered at the other office this morning? I could not remember it. The next day back at the first office I entered that new password without a thought and then realized, I remember passwords by the surroundings.

Doorway effect on memory.

The “doorway effect” also is likely to be more pronounced when you abuse substances. Doorway effect is the phenomenon of moving through a doorway, going from my home office to the kitchen for some water, and when I get to the kitchen I can’t remember why I am there. This confusion and the available food may explain that mysterious weight gain. This is a normal occurrence for people who do not do drugs but my experience working in substance abuse programs suggests that substance abusers are more likely to find their memories erased by moving from one place to another.

There are some thoughts on blackouts, state dependent learning, situational memory and the doorway effect coupled with the effects of drugs and alcohol on memories.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.

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